NFL Playoffs? The Detroit Lions will not be able to back their way in this time

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In 2016, the Detroit Lions qualified for the NFL Playoffs for the second time in three seasons. Not a bad accomplishment for a franchise that has become accustomed to playing out the 16-game regular season schedule and then watching the playoffs from home.

But as we know, last season’s playoff appearance was a bit tainted. Some would even say it was a fraud or a joke. Those people would certainly have a legit argument.

After winning 8 of 9 games to move to 9-4 on the season, the Lions lost their final three regular-season games, including a 31-24 Week 17 matchup against the Green Bay Packers. Had the Lions won that game, which was played at Ford Field, they would have clinched an NFC North title, and a home playoff game. Instead, by losing, they finished tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the last NFC playoff spot. Luckily, the Lions won the tiebreaker over the Bucs due to their record against common opponents, and despite dropping their final three games, they backed into the playoffs, where they were destroyed by the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round.

There will not be any “backing in” this time around

After their come-from-behind win over the winless Cleveland Browns in Week 10, the Lions sit at 5-4, which happens to be the exact same record they had in 2016 after their first nine games.

But this time around, the Lions are not tied for the division lead like they were last season. Instead, they trail the Minnesota Vikings (7-2) by two games in the NFC North. Sure, Detroit already beat the Vikings on the road and they have another shot at them on Thanksgiving Day at Ford Field, but it will take more than that for the Lions to get into the playoffs.

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In addition to trailing the Vikings, the NFC Wild Card race is shaping out to be extremely competitive. The Lions are certainly in the mix, but if they cannot catch Minnesota for the North crown, it will be very difficult for them to pull out a Wild Card berth.

As it stands, the Lions are 8th in the NFC, trailing division leaders Philadelphia (8-1), Minnesota (7-2), New Orleans (7-2), and the L.A. Rams (7-2), in addition to Carolina (7-3), Seattle (6-3), and Atlanta (5-4) in the Wild Card race.

*Photo via ESPN

Not only are the Lions currently on the outside looking in but there are multiple roadblocks that could come into play if they do not win the North.

As we know, New Orleans, Carolina, and Atlanta ALL beat the Lions in their head-to-head matchups this season. That, of course, means that if it were to come down to a head-to-head tie-breaker, Detroit would be on the outside looking in.

If the Lions want to get into the 2017 NFL Playoffs, they are going to have to turn on the heat immediately and keep winning because there will be no backing into the playoffs this time around.

It won’t be easy, but nothing worth having is

In order to earn a playoff spot, the Lions have two obvious options. First, they could pass the Vikings and win the NFC North outright. If that were to happen, not only would the Lions get into the playoffs, but they would host a playoff game for the first time since 1993. The second option would be to take one of the two Wild Card spots available in the NFC. If that were to happen, Detroit would get into the playoffs but they would have to hit the road like they did last season when they were stomped by Seattle.

The Lions trail the Vikings by two games in the NFC North but that deficit is far from insurmountable. Not only have the Lions already beat the Vikings on the road but they will get another crack at them at Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day. If Detroit can take care of business at home on Turkey Day, they will own the tie-breaker over Minnesota in the North.

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From here on out, in comparison to the Vikings, the Lions have the favorable schedule as they face only two teams (Minnesota and Green Bay) who currently have a winning record. Minnesota’s schedule to end the season is much more difficult as they will play five of their remaining seven games against teams who currently sit above .500, including tilts against the Rams, Falcons, and Panthers.

Lions remaining schedule

Vikings remaining schedule

Winning the NFC North is very possible for the Lions but they will have to handle their business in the games they are supposed to win, including against the Vikings in Week 12.

Option two, earning one of two available Wild Card spots, would mean the Lions have to pass a couple of teams who are ahead of them in the NFC overall standings. For this option, let’s assume Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans, and the Los Angeles Rams end up winning their divisions. That leaves Carolina (7-3), Seattle (6-3), Atlanta (5-4), and Dallas (5-4) as the Lions main competition for a Wild Card spot.

Looking at the Lions remaining schedule, they should be the favorite in 6 of their final 7 games but that does not guarantee anything. If they win the games they should be favored in, Detroit will finish the season 11-5 and will likely win the NFC North. But if they are upended in even one of those other games they should be favored to win, 10-6 is staring them in the face. In most seasons, 10-6 would almost certainly mean a Wild Card berth but this is not most seasons.

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Carolina seems like a lock to at least get a Wild Card berth but they do have a few tough games left including @New Orleans, vs. Minnesota, and @Atlanta. That being said, even if they were to drop all three of those games, they would still finish the season 10-6, which would mean the Lions would have to finish 11-5 to pass them in the standings.

Panthers remaining schedule

Seattle, whose 6-3 record is not amazing, is one of the best teams in the NFC. That being said, they too have some difficult games down the stretch including vs. Atlanta, vs. Philadelphia, vs. L.A. Rams, and @Dallas. If I had to make a prediction, I would project that Seattle finishes 11-5, which would certainly give them AT LEAST a Wild Card berth, if not more.

Seahawks remaining schedule

The Cowboys and Falcons, two of the preseason favorites, are EXTREMELY dangerous and one or both of those teams could end up making some serious noise in the NFC before all is said and done. If would not surprise me one bit to see either of those powerhouses get hot and win 11 games.

Win the North or go home

At this point, knowing the current NFC landscape, the primary goal for the 2017 Detroit is to leapfrog the Vikings and to win the NFC North. By doing so they will not only guarantee themselves a place in the NFL playoffs but they will also guarantee themselves a home playoff game at Ford Field.

If the Lions slip up during their final seven games, they could finish 10-6 or 9-7, which will not be enough to get them a Wild Card spot in the NFC. There are just too many other teams in competition with the Lions for anything less than 11 wins to be enough in this year’s NFC Wild Card picture.

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So, the question is, will the 2017 Detroit Lions rise up to the occasion and prove they deserve to be included in the “best teams in the NFC” conversation or will they curl up in the fetal position and allow yet another golden opportunity pass them by?

Hopefully, they rise up, because there will be no backing into the playoffs this time around.